Gene Sharp - The Politics Of Nonviolent Action ( All Three Parts)
- Publication date
- Public Domain Mark 1.0
- nonviolence, nonviolent action, political power, civil disobedience, civil resistance, protest, social movement
In the years immediately after its publication, The Politics of Nonviolent Action opened a new way of thinking about nonviolence, which had previously been dominated by Gandhian perspectives. Instead of focusing on the ethics of action, Sharp offered an approach that was potentially broader in its appeal. People had been using methods of nonviolent action for centuries, and there had been quite a number of significant campaigns. Sharp provided a different way of thinking about this action, in terms of a pragmatic warrant (the consent theory of power), methods used and trajectories of campaigns.
Sharp was not alone in his understanding of nonviolent action. There had long been a strategic dimension to nonviolence, and Sharp showed this most clearly in his 1979 book Gandhi as a Political Strategist. By clearly distinguishing his perspective from Gandhi’s, Sharp took nonviolence to activists and researchers who were not enamoured by the emphasis on the moral superiority of nonviolence.
In the decades since the publication of The Politics of Nonviolent Action, there has been a great expansion in the strategic use of nonviolent action, so much so that many of Sharp’s ideas have become implicit understandings within social movements. While some revolutionaries remain committed to armed struggle, and debates rage about diversity of tactics, nonviolent action is widely accepted as a standard approach.
In the years while Sharp was writing the book, he was frustrated by the attitude of pacifists who wanted to eliminate conflict and who criticised nonviolent action because it accepted the need to wage conflict. Sharp did not anticipate that this sort of opposition to nonviolent action would die away and be replaced by virulent attacks from left-wing opponents of US imperialism.
Meanwhile, in the academy, the uptake of Sharp’s work has been much more tentative. For decades, few scholars outside the small nonviolence research community took any notice of nonviolent action as a serious area for research. This has changed somewhat in recent years, but Sharp, and nonviolence more generally, remain little appreciated in mainstream disciplines.
Although many of Sharp’s ideas have become common currency among activists, few actually spend a great deal of time immersed in The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Yet there are some important messages that deserve revisiting. Concerning the consent theory of power, it is possible to raise all sorts of theoretical objections, especially in light of contemporary thinking about power as being pervasive, implicated in all sorts of actions and relationships. Yet despite the theoretical appeal of figures like Michel Foucault and Michel de Certeau, their frameworks do not provide guidelines for resistance that are tied to specific ways of acting. The consent theory’s ruler-subject framework may be simplistic but no other approach has been shown to have such practical value for activists. Thinking again of Sharp as using grounded theory, it might be said that the consent theory of power grows out of empirical studies of nonviolent campaigns. The implication for today’s scholars is to undertake their own development of theory grounded in observations of action, aimed at a way of understanding action that serves those who oppose domination.
Although the idea of 198 methods of nonviolent action has become almost a cliché in some circles, its implications still remain to be fully grasped. The key is that there are innumerable ways to undertake action that are neither conventional nor do physical harm to opponents. Activists need to think creatively, as recommended by a number of analysts, and Sharp’s methods remain a good starting point. Rather than simply ticking off methods, it is important to understand each one in context: methods need to be chosen and used in the context of skills, opponents and the strategic context. Experienced activists know this intuitively. Yet there remains plenty to learn by looking at Sharp’s examples and at new methods that have been documented.
Finally, Sharp’s framework called “the dynamics of nonviolent action” remains largely untapped. It would be possible to take each element of the dynamics and carry out a detailed analysis. For example, the first element, “Laying the groundwork,” has been given little attention by researchers. It would be possible to examine methods used by rulers to undermine budding opposition (Dobson, 2012) and methods that activists can use to build capacity and resist repression and cooption. Similar examinations could be undertaken of other elements in the dynamics.
The Politics of Nonviolent Action is deservedly a classic of nonviolence, but it should not be left on a shelf. The greatest tribute to Sharp’s pioneering work is to tackle the issues he put forward, building on his ideas, challenging them and adapting them to today’s challenges.
-- Brian Martin
- 2020-02-01 12:58:20
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